Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interview with Vincent Price expert Jonathan Lampley

The Halloween season is the perfect time to talk about classic horror icon Vincent Price, who ranks among the all-time greats alongside Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee. In order to learn more about the star of classic thrillers like House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), and House on Haunted Hill (1959), I turned to horror movie scholar and lifelong fan Jonathan M. Lampley, a professor in the Humanities Department at Dalton State College and the author of the 2010 McFarland book, Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price. He's also the co-author of The Amazing, Colossal Book of Horror Trivia (Cumberland House, 1999). Here's what Jonathan has to say about one of everyone's favorite classic horror stars.

VV: When did you first become a Vincent Price fan? What are some of your earliest memories of seeing him and his films?
 
You know, I can't remember a time when I was NOT a Price fan!  Usually I can remember when and where I was when I got into something; for example, I trace my interest in horror films to 1975, when I was about 8 years old and my parents bought me a copy of Thomas G. Aylesworth's kiddie book, Movie Monsters. Aylesworth went into the literary and historical origins of the various monster myths, so it was from him that I learned Dracula and Frankenstein were novels before they were movies.  Aylesworth also discussed the great horror stars, so he introduced me to Karloff, Lugosi, Cushing, Lee, etc.  Even after the passage of almost 40 years, I still recall knowing the name "Vincent Price" even if I did not know the other names in the book.

I have often wondered why I knew Price's name by the time I was 8, but I have no recollection of seeing any of his movies at that time.  Perhaps my older brother had something to do with it, as I remember him playing Alice Cooper's album Welcome to My Nightmare, which of course features Price's monologue on "The Black Widow," which also came out in '75.  It is also possible that I knew Price almost by osmosis, as he was on so many TV shows in the early 70s, and I have vague recollections of his appearance on The Brady Bunch around that time. I know in the late 70s I saw him on TV in The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theater of Blood, Tomb of Ligeia, Masque of the Red Death, and many others.  Certainly I was a hardcore fan by 1979, when I saw Price live on stage in Diversions and Delights, which he did in Nashville at Vanderbilt University.  In fact, many years later I learned that Price came out and did a Q and A with the audience after the performance--but my mother and I didn't know he was going to do it, so we left at the end of the show.  I missed my chance to meet Price!  Again, though, I always knew who he was and always was interested in the actor.

VV: What made you particularly interested in looking at the women in Price’s horror movies?

Well, the book is an expansion of my doctoral dissertation, which looked at the women in Price's Poe adaptations.  I wanted to do something with classic horror for my dissertation, and even before I began writing it, I knew I wanted to publish it eventually. I started out thinking about doing something with Hammer Horror movies, and when I was considering possible approaches, I thought of focusing on the role of women in Hammer films. I don't remember exactly why I switched to the Price/Poe films, but it probably had something to do with the fact that there were already books about the women of Hammer, but nothing had been done about women in the Poe films. The more I watched and thought about the Price/Poe films and the ways women are portrayed in those pictures, the more I realized this was a topic that needed to be explored in depth.  As I point out in the book, women are portrayed as victims, vixens, and objects of veneration, often at the same time, in the Poe adaptations. When I approached McFarland about publishing the dissertation, I was told it was a little too short and needed to be expanded.  That's when I decided to look at women in all of Price's horror films, not just the Poe pictures.

VV: If you could recommend just one Vincent Price movie to readers, which one would it be? What makes that one an essential example?

That's a tough question! It's so hard to pick just one, but if I had to, I would pick The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).  It's my favorite of his horror films - in fact, after Horror of Dracula, it is my favorite horror movie, period!  I love the blend of horror and humor, and it is one of the relatively few scary movies set during the 1920s - even after 40 years, the costumes and sets are really cool. I have always been fascinated with the film's portrayal of the relationship between Dr. Phibes and his late wife, Victoria. In fact, my chapter on the Phibes films is my favorite in the book, but it was the hardest to write because I had so much to say about that relationship, and also Phibes' relationship with his lovely but mute female assistant, Vulnavia. There really do seem to be some interesting things going on in the subtext of those relationships!

Having chosen Phibes, though, I must admit that to really appreciate the film, you have to be familiar with Price's previous film work - and his public persona in general. The movie clearly borrows some of its ideas from previous Price movies, especially the Poe films. The idea of the Price character mourning his dead wife, still being fascinated with her - that had already been established as a trope in Price's career. The fact that Dr. Phibes is out for revenge is almost a homage to the revenge themes in House of Wax (1953) and many others.  And of course there are nods in the film to Price's reputation as an art critic and a gourmet chef. I know Phibes was one of the first Price movies I ever saw, and it has always been one of my favorites, but I think I only fully appreciated it after I had studied his life and works.

A part of me wants to pick another "desert island" Price movie, just as something to introduce future fans to his work, but something always makes me reject those other suggestions. Theater of Blood, for example, is a very, very close second favorite of mine - but its mixture of horror and humor is derived from Phibes, so at the end of the day I must choose Phibes first. The Poe films are obviously way up on my list, but which one is the quintessential Price movie?  My favorite of those would be The Conqueror Worm, but that wasn't even made as a Poe adaptation, really, and the others are just so evenly matched in terms of their strong and weak points that no clear winner emerges. House of Wax and The Fly are probably the most familiar VP movies - they certainly made the most money and were the ones most often cited in his obituaries - but as much as I like them, they just don't resonate in the same way Phibes does.

VV: Vincent Price has become such an icon of classic horror. Why do you think people react to Price so strongly, especially in horror roles?

I think Price became such a favorite because his horror star status came along at just the right time. His status had been slowly developing; remember that his earliest film roles included parts in such early shockers as Tower of London and The Invisible Man Returns. House of Wax was certainly a major turning point in his career in 1953, but an examination of his filmography reveals few other "scary movies" until 1958, when he did both The Fly and House on Haunted Hill.  By the time Price did House of Usher in 1960, he was firmly associated with the horror genre - a genre in which he found himself, incidentally, with few peers. Lugosi was dead by 1960, and Karloff hadn't made a major horror film in years. Karloff enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in the 60s, but I think interest in him was rekindled largely because of interest in Price. As much as I love Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and as influential as their films were in the late 50s and early 60s, their impact was always greater in Britain than in America.

Vincent Price was a "name brand" in this country, somebody my parents knew, even though they never watched horror movies. Price was such a fixture on TV and radio, and to a certain extent in print, that he really was a media superstar even without his horror films. He had a certain degree of fame among older fans because of his pre-horror career, and the 60s horror movies and TV roles introduced him to younger fans, so it was just a case of being in the right place at the right time and finding a way to exploit the opportunities that came his way.

Some critics have claimed that Price represents a sort of rebel figure that 60s-era young people related to; even though he was well into his middle years, there was something about Price that symbolized the youth movement of the time. Frankly, I think the Price characters more often than not represent the older generation; many of his performances are as characters who represent an obsolete way of life, such as the aristocratic types trying to hold onto their non-democratic way of life in 19th century America in House of Usher and especially Dragonwyck. I think young viewers in the 60s may have related more to the young protagonists in Price's Poe films. But at the end of the day, the #1 factor in Price's rise to fame seems to be his charisma and sense of humor, which shines through in so many otherwise serious performances. I don't agree with many critics who claim the actor didn't take his roles seriously; his best roles, even when there are comic overtones, demonstrate his sense of timing (comic and otherwise) and make wonderful use of his voice. Still, there is a twinkle in his eye in pretty much everything he did, and I think people of all ages were attracted to it - and some of us still are!

VV: Tell us about some of your other favorite classic horror movies and stars.

I must confess that Vincent Price is not my favorite horror star - he's #2 on my list, following very closely on the heels of Peter Cushing. My affection for Peter Cushing is largely a matter of timing; he was in Star Wars, which I saw on its original release, and that film really cemented my love not just for fantasy, sci fi, and horror, but for film in general. Star Wars changed my life, and I think the fact that Cushing was in it made me such a hardcore fan. Of course, it also is true that I became a rabid Hammer Horror fan in the middle and late 70s, and Cushing is such an icon of those pictures. Of all the horror movie stars, I think Cushing is the one who most often gave 100% - no matter how crappy the movie might be or how small the role. Cushing's face, particularly his eyes, were so good at conveying evil and villainy, but they were also perfect for conveying goodness and heroism. I am always impressed when my film students react to him - these young folks, some of whom were born after Cushing's death, somehow seem to relate to him more than the other Horror Heroes, at least based on the few films I have time to show during a semester. And as I mentioned before, Horror of Dracula has been my favorite horror film - my favorite film, period, quite honestly - for decades.

Obviously, this means I love Christopher Lee as well! I am so glad he's still around, still making movies in his 90s! I am also glad that directors like Peter Jackson and Tim Burton are using Lee and introducing him to a new generation of fans. Lee is also getting the honors for his career that the other Horror Heroes never dreamed of - his knighthood, for instance, represents to me a sort of indirect acknowledgement of the contributions to the entertainment industry made by Cushing, Karloff, Rathbone, and many other fine British performers. The same goes for his Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Film Institute. I just hope the Academy Award will honor his work before it's too late! I met Lee briefly back in 1999, so that's a highlight of my film fan career!

I also love the work of Bela Lugosi, whom I think is a seriously underrated actor. I definitely prefer him to Karloff, even though Karloff's movies tend to be better. Frankly, as much as I love Karloff, he phoned in a lot more performances than Lugosi. I am quite proud of my familiarity with old horror movies, and even I can't tell Karloff's "mad doctor" films from the 30s and 40s apart!  Of course, when Karloff was on his game, as in the Frankenstein films or The Mummy or Targets, he's nothing short of amazing.

I am less familiar with the Chaneys, especially Lon Sr., many of whose films are now lost, but I like them as well. I suppose I should list some other favorite classic horror films to your readers, so here goes: The Flesh and the Fiends (Cushing and Donald Pleasance), The Wicker Man (the original with Lee), Island of Terror (Cushing), The Human Monster (Lugosi), Son of Frankenstein (Karloff, Lugosi, Rathbone, and Lionel Atwill), Tower of London (Karloff, Rathbone, Price), Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death (both with Price), The Haunted Palace (Price and Chaney Jr), and one of my very favorites, the criminally underrated cult film Scream and Scream Again (with Price, Lee, and Cushing).

VV: What other books about classic horror movies can you recommend to readers?

The trivia book I wrote with Ken Beck and Jim Clark is the closest thing to those big old picture books of my childhood, as it contains a lot more information than just trivia, but it has been out for a few years. I strongly recommend David J. Skal's books, especially Hollywood Gothic and The Monster Show, as Skal is sort of the dean of classic horror movie experts these days, and a mighty fine writer as well. There are a few other books about Vincent Price; the ones I recommend most highly are the biography his daughter Victoria wrote and Dennis Meikle's excellent study from 2003. My single favorite horror movie book of all time is David Pirie's A Heritage of Horror, which came out in 1973 and was really the first serious study of British horror movies. A great book and highly influential, even though Pirie for some reason called Phibes the worst British horror film made since 1945! Pirie revised and expanded the book in 2008, and I noticed he took the anti-Phibes comment out of the new edition! Jonathan Rigby has two great books, English Gothic and American Gothic, that I highly recommend. I also suggest scouring used bookstores and eBay for copies of those great old picture books from the 70s: anything by Dennis Gifford, Alan Frank, Everson, and Clarens is worth reading. And if you have younger fans in the house, consider finding copies of Tom Aylesworth's books. Look what they've done for me!

VV: How does an expert on classic horror movies celebrate Halloween? Any special plans this year?

Actually, I will be doing a book signing at Dalton State College, where I teach English and film, and I will also be running a horror/Halloween trivia game. It should be lots of fun!

Jonathan's books are available at online at booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, and you can also get Women in the Horror Films of Vincent Price on Kindle. Both books make great Halloween treats (or Christmas gifts) for serious horror fans!